Proponents of a statewide smoking ban try, try again

Posted Saturday, Mar. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Undaunted by defeats in three previous legislative sessions, a broad-based coalition of health advocates is re-launching a push for a statewide smoking ban in most public places and indoor worksites.

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, introduced smoking ban legislation on Friday as lawmakers rushed to meet a deadline to file bills for the 2013 Legislature. Crownover's bill is identical to a measure filed in January by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

The bipartisan legislation is the latest attempt by Smoke-Free Texas to enact a comprehensive statewide policy that would replace a patchwork of diverse smoking restrictions at the local level. The coalition, created in 2006, includes organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.

Crownover and Ellis pushed similar bills in 2007, 2009 and 2011 but consistently faced opposition from conservative groups that denounced the ban as a form of government intrusion into private business. The proposed ban passed the House twice -- in 2007 and 2011 -- but has never come up for debate on the floor of the Senate.

"All we know is there is public support for this," said Claudia Rodas of Houston, a campaign co-manager for Smoke-Free Texas. "We have a lot of momentum, a lot of public support behind us."

Rodas said the ban's supporters have been working to change the outcome in the 2013 session by meeting with lawmakers and urging their constituents to rally behind the proposed legislation. Advocates cite polls showing that more than two-thirds of the public favor an extensive smoking ban.

"Everyone deserves to be able to breathe safe and clean air," said Rodas, who is government relations director with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. More than 300 organizations are engaged in the effort, she said.

Rodas said that 32 Texas cities have what her organization considers "strong and comprehensive" ordinances that have essentially the same reach as the proposed statewide ban. Smoking restrictions are also in force in other cities, including Fort Worth and Arlington

The Ellis-Crownover legislation would prohibit smoking in public places, including restaurants, bars (except for outdoor patios), retail establishments, sports arenas, convention centers, theaters, health care facilities, and shopping malls.

It would also prohibit smoking in places of employment, in what Rodas said is an effort to protect nonsmokers from health dangers caused by workmates who smoke. "They should not have to choose between paychecks and their health," she said.

Changing exemptions

Exemptions would include private homes, designated smoking rooms in hotels and motels, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, tobacco shops, so-called cigar bars and private clubs that don't have employees.

Pool halls and billiard parlors, which were exempted in a version of the bill in 2011, would be included in the latest ban.

"We'd be opposed to it," said Nick Alexander, president of Dallas-based Clicks Billiards Inc., noting that billiard parlors have "a much higher percentage" of clientele who smoke.

Alexander said the number of billiard halls in his corporation has fallen from about 30 to 15 because of declining business from smoking ordinances. Sales at a billiards hall in Tempe, Ariz., dropped 35 percent the first week after the enactment of a local smoking ordinance.

If enacted and signed into law, the proposed ban would broaden the scope of smoking prohibitions in Fort Worth and Arlington.

Both cities prohibit smoking in many public places, including restaurants, but allow certain exceptions. Fort Worth permits smoking in bars but not in billiard parlors. Arlington's ordinance allows smoking in bars and billiard parlors that aren't open to anyone under 18.

Glen Garey, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association, said the group's membership endorses a consistent statewide policy that would replace the current hodge-podge of ordinances. The current system, he said, is particularly confusing in metropolitan areas, where ordinances may vary from one neighboring municipality to another.

The organization's directors supported the previous smoking ban bills but have not taken an official position on the latest legislation.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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